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Image of the week: Icy plumes of Enceladus

16 Apr 2012


In March 2012, the international Cassini spacecraft was on its way to its lowest pass yet over the south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus when it took this image of the impressive plumes.


Raw image of Enceladus plume from Cassini.

Raw image of Enceladus plume from Cassini
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The plumes are jets of water ice and vapour, mixed with organic compounds. With this flyby coming within a mere 74 km, scientists hope to learn more about the composition, density and variability of these remarkable features of Enceladus. The plumes originate from the ‘tiger stripe’ surface fractures at the moon’s south pole, and create the faint E-ring, which traces the orbit of Enceladus around Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft discovered the plumes in 2005 and has since been able to fly directly through them.

Enceladus is one of the brightest objects in our solar system. Covered in water ice that reflects sunlight like freshly fallen snow, Enceladus reflects almost 100% of the sunlight that strikes it. Because Enceladus reflects so much sunlight, the surface temperature is extremely cold, about -201° C.

This raw image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft was taken on March 27, 2012. The camera was pointing toward Saturn's moon Enceladus at approximately 144,281 miles (232,197 kilometres) away. A validated/calibrated image will be archived with the NASA Planetary Data System in 2013.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The UK has been at the forefront of the design, engineering and science of this mission. Various British universities and businesses have helped develop many of the instruments on board the spacecraft. All this technology had to operate flawlessly after seven years en route to the Saturnian system in the harsh space environment.